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Blackwater: Private Army In The News Again
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. The private military company Blackwater,
which has played a major role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is at the
center of several controversies and lawsuits. Recent stories broken by my
guest, Jeremy Scahill, as well as the New York Times, ABC News and Vanity Fair,
have raised many questions about how much access private companies should have
to classified intelligence and what role, if any, they should be allowed to
play in covert military and CIA operations.
Jeremy Scahill has been investigating Blackwater for several years. He's the
author of the book "Blackwater," which was first published in 2007, and he's
been writing about the company in The Nation magazine, where he's the national
Jeremy Scahill, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, we're going to be focusing on
Blackwater, but really, they're just one of many private contractors now in
Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's start with an overview of how many private
contractors and how many different companies are actually in Iraq and
Mr. JEREMY SCAHILL (Author, "Blackwater"; National Security Correspondent, The
Nation): Well, right now, according to the latest DOD census, there's about 250
to 260,000 uniformed members of the United States military operating in Iraq,
Afghanistan and in support of those operations. However, there's a statistic
that almost never goes mentioned, and that is that there is an equal number of
contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, meaning that the U.S. military
is of equal size to the contractor force in both of those wars.
In Afghanistan, it's more pronounced, though, Terry, because you have about
68,000 U.S. troops operating alongside a whopping 104,000 contractors. And with
the recently announced surge in troops, that number's expect to grow at a one-
to-one ratio with U.S. troops. So it's quite stunning, the number of
contractors that are currently deployed on the U.S. government payroll.
There are about 600 corporations that service the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and these range from KBR, which specializes in logistics, to Blackwater,
DynCorp and Triple Canopy, which are essentially paramilitary forces that are
working for either the Department of Defense, the Department of State or the
GROSS: What are the implications of that ratio of private contractors to
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, I mean, this is a stunning rarity in the military history of
the United States, where you actually have a theater of war, Afghanistan, where
the U.S. military is actually the second-largest force operating in the
country. This is a system that was not the invention of George W. Bush, it was
certainly a bipartisan program, but the Bush administration really changed the
way U.S. wars are waged.
You no longer need to depend on nation-state allies to provide you with troops
or other support forces. You can simply rent an army. And the reality is that
U.S. taxpayers are now funding what is essentially a shadow army. Their deaths
don't get counted in the official death tolls. Their injuries don't get
counted. And also, the operations of these companies are often shrouded in
secrecy and are very difficult to obtain information on by journalists and the
GROSS: How does the Obama administration compare to the Bush administration in
its use of private contractors so far?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, there's sort of a contradiction here because President
Obama, when he was a senator, was really one of the few lawmakers that zeroed
in on this as a problem. In fact, Senator Obama put forward the legislation
that became the leading Democratic legislation to try to address the widespread
use of contractors. And the Obama strategy when he was in the Senate was to try
to bring them into the fold, regulate them, make them accountable, bring them
under some system of law.
I say contradiction, though, because while Obama and Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, prior to taking power in January of 2009, were very critical of these
companies, they've actually used them in a more widespread way than the Bush
administration had when it was in power for eight years.
So the reality is that there was a rhetoric of trying to crack down on these
contractors, but then a reality of realizing that without them, President
Obama's strategy in Iraq, and indeed in Afghanistan, would simply not be
GROSS: Let's talk about the some of the recent Blackwater news. You broke a
story last month about Blackwater being involved with the Joint Special
Operations Command in Karachi, in a secret program. What's the secret program?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, this actually goes back to 2006. The Bush administration
struck a deal with the government of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan that would
allow U.S. Special Operations forces to cross the border from Afghanistan into
Pakistan if they were, quote, "following the target" - in other words, if they
were chasing Osama bin Laden or some of his deputies, U.S. Special Forces,
according to the understanding, could go into Pakistan to hunt them down with
the agreement that the Pakistanis would say they had not given permission for
it and that they could condemn it as basically a violation of their
The reality at the time was that U.S. forces were stretched very thin in both
Iraq and Afghanistan, and so the Joint Special Operations Command began hiring
former Special Forces operators, and Blackwater sort of had the premium on
those characters from the Navy Seals, Delta Force, Army Rangers. They would
hire them on an operation-to-operation basis in both Afghanistan and, beginning
in 2006, in Pakistan.
So Blackwater had an arrangement with JSOC, the Join Special Operations
Command, to do a few things. One was to plan operations that are referred to in
the industry as snatch-and-grab operations: taking out a high-value target,
rendering him and then interrogating him.
They also began working on both the CIA's drone-bombing campaign, which is a
story that was broken by the New York Times earlier this year, in addition to a
parallel drone-bombing campaign that was being operated by the U.S. military.
And so Blackwater became a central part of both JSOC's operations in Pakistan,
which are classified and covert and are being denied by the Pentagon and the
White House all the way up and down, as well as the CIA's.
And I have to say, Terry, that while we've seen a number of issue â incidents
where Blackwater forces have been accused of using excessive force, of killing
civilians, the guys that are working on these sensitive operations are part of
a division of Blackwater called Blackwater Select.
These are not cowboy yahoos that are running around trying to kill people with
no justification. These are guys that were top-of-the-line Special Forces
operators that were the Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia. These aren't 25-year-old
guys. They're in their mid-30s, some of them in their 40s. And the reason they
were hired is because they'd been there, they'd done that, and there was a need
for those kinds of services at the time.
GROSS: So you've described some of the secret programs that Blackwater is
alleged to have been involved with. Do you think that that poses problems?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, it doesn't matter what I think. The issue here, as has been
expressed to me by members of Congress and members of the military, is that
when you outsource these kinds of sensitive operations to private contractors -
and in the case of Blackwater, a company that's headed by a very political
right-wing guy - you're creating a situation where guys who don't actually have
permanent security clearances are given access to very sensitive intelligence
that the Intelligence Committee itself does not even have access to.
So what you're essentially saying is we trust this private company more than we
trust lawmakers. Perhaps the most outrageous part of this, to members of the
U.S. military, is that some of these operations have actually taken place
outside of the traditional military chain of command, so that you have JSOC
essentially being the supported force in a war zone, and the command structure
is either supporting it or is in the dark. And that, with the sources I talked
to, is one of the most offensive aspects of this.
GROSS: We should mention that JSOC, the Joint Special Operation Command, is not
accountable to Congress. They don't report to Congress. And I guess that's what
you mean by Congress being left in the dark about things that private
Mr. SCAHILL: Right. You know, I talked to Lawrence Wilkerson, who was then-
Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, and he described to me how,
under the Bush administration, JSOC essentially acted as a direct surrogate of
the administration. And, in fact, General McChrystal, who is now the commander
of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, ran JSOC from 2003 to 2008, and
Colonel Wilkerson described to me how some of the operatives working on these
secret JSOC programs would get in trouble in countries around the world.
And he cited one example in Latin America, where he said that a Special Forces
guy actually murdered a taxi driver, and the CIA had to render him - in other
words, abduct him - and fly him back to the United States to get him out of
that Latin American country.
So you can see the issue there, where you have the military Special Forces
engaged in operations, and the chief of mission in a country, the ambassador or
the CIA station chief, don't even know they're there. You could imagine what
kind of chaos that would cause behind the scenes when a lethal action goes
GROSS: Now you mentioned the snatch-and-grab program that Blackwater is alleged
to have been involved with. Did you mention the targeted assassination program?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, the targeted assassination program is something that bled
into both JSOC and the CIA throughout the duration of Blackwater's relationship
with these two entities. Adam Ciralsky, who's a former CIA lawyer, wrote in a
Vanity Fair piece that's going to hit newsstands in January that Erik Prince,
for years - at least since 2004, 2005 - was providing members of a secret
Blackwater team to the CIA as part of a global hit team that would hunt down
So you have that program, where Blackwater was working on black ops for the
CIA. And then you have a second, parallel program, which is the JSOC targeted
assassination program, and that, generally speaking, has been in the form of
drone-bombing campaigns, where Blackwater guys are helping to track targets,
develop a pattern of their routine, and then present JSOC with options to take
So when we talk about the assassination program, for the CIA, it sounds like it
was actually training teams to go and hit people in countries around the world.
And when it came to JSOC, it seems like it was more focused on the drone-
GROSS: So did your sources tell you what activities the private contractors
from Blackwater participated in, in the drone campaign?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, what we know from the CIA end of it, from the great
reporting of Jim Risen and Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times is that
Blackwater operatives were actually loading Hellfire Missiles onto the drones
that would then be used to strike at targets inside of Pakistan.
My sources, however, tell me that with JSOC, the Blackwater guys were much more
involved than just putting munitions on drone aircraft that they actually were
involved with mission planning. Now, that would be a very serious crossing of
the line because that traditionally would be a role for the uniformed United
States Armed Forces, but my understanding from my military intelligence sources
is that Blackwater guys - and these were the real veteran Special Forces guys â
were actually planning these missions and helping to select targets. And that's
something that has really raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
GROSS: Now at the time that Blackwater is alleged to have been involved in
these secret operations with JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, the
head of JSOC was General Stanley McChrystal, who is now, under the Obama
administration, the head of military forces in Afghanistan. So he, I would
imagine, would know a lot about this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCAHILL: There are two people that probably know more about this than
anyone, and they happen to be the two top military officials in Afghanistan
right now. One of them, of course, is General McChrystal, who was the head of
JSOC from 2003 to 2008. And the other is Admiral William McRaven, who is the
current head of JSOC and was McChrystal's deputy and, in fact, took over JSOC
after McChrystal was promoted.
I've talked to former Bush administration officials that have described an
incredibly cozy relationship between former Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, former Vice President Dick Cheney and General McChrystal, where
General McChrystal was essentially reporting directly to Rumsfeld and Cheney on
operations, and they were effectively carving JSOC out of the broader military
chain of command.
So General McChrystal, if he was asked about this in front of the Congress,
especially in camera or in closed-door hearings, I'm sure would have a lot to
say - or not to say, Terry, as the case often is.
GROSS: So are you suggesting that you think that General McChrystal was working
closely with Dick Cheney's office during the Bush administration?
Mr. SCAHILL: I have no doubt about it, based on what I've heard from people who
were in the know during the Bush administration. I've also heard from people
that Cheney helped coordinate the testimony of General McChrystal about the
death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, which was determined to be a friendly-fire
incident, and that Cheney actually colluded with General McChrystal to attempt
to cover up that death.
GROSS: Were you surprised when President Obama chose General McChrystal as the
head of forces in Afghanistan?
Mr. SCAHILL: Was I surprised? No. I wasn't surprised because I think that a lot
of people misread President Obama, and a lot of his supporters, I think,
erroneously viewed him as a dove that was going to substantially change the way
that wars are waged.
I think that Obama selected the man that his advisors were telling him was the
best person to prosecute this war, and I think that President Obama bought into
General McChrystal's famed coin, or counterinsurgency doctrine, for
So was I surprised? No. But I also share the concerns of those who have
followed General McChrystal's career and those that say when you have the
Special Forces rise to the top of the command in the way that they have over
the past eight or nine years, that there's cause for serious concern because
these are guys that are used to operating off the books, away from oversight
and in the darkest corners of the world, committing acts that no one ever finds
out about or attributes to them.
So that, I think, would be the concern, is that McChrystal is used to not being
accountable to anyone, and I think that's the concern about having him running
the whole show.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Jeremy Scahill. He's
the author of the 2007 book "Blackwater." He's been covering the story,
breaking a lot of news in The Nation magazine, where he covers national
security. We'll talk more about Blackwater after we take a short break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Scahill. He covers national security for The Nation
magazine. We're talking about Blackwater and other private contractors in Iraq
Blackwater is facing several charges now. One of them has to do with a massacre
in Baghdad in 2007. Would you describe what you know of that massacre?
Mr. SCAHILL: Right. On the afternoon of September 16th, 2007, a convoy of three
armored vehicles operated by Blackwater pulled into a very crowded intersection
known as Nisour Square, and it's unclear what happened or how the shooting
began. The Blackwater guys say that they were victims of an armed ambush.
Witnesses on the ground, including those from the United States military, say
that Blackwater forces just opened fire on the crowd, unprovoked. And after
about 12 to 15 minutes of sustained gunfire, you had 17 Iraqi civilians that
were dead, more than 20 others wounded.
When the military and the FBI investigated, they determined - the U.S. military
and the FBI investigated, they determined that there was no provocation and
that there were people that were shot in the back as they were attempting to
flee the Blackwater gunmen.
Senior members of the Bush administration colluded with Blackwater in the
aftermath of that killing to try to cover up the incident. In fact, the State
Department's first statement about that massacre was, in fact, written by a
Blackwater contractor named Darren Hanner on State Department stationery.
Well, the Justice Department investigated this, and they determined that 14 of
the 17 deaths that day were manslaughter. And so six Blackwater operatives were
indicted on manslaughter charges. One of them, a young man named Jeremy
Ridgeway, pled guilty to one charge and is cooperating with the government, and
that trial is set to begin early next year.
The most recent news on that is that the government has dropped charges against
one of those men. So in reality, Terry, four men at this point are going to
stand trial on charges that they gunned down those Iraqis without any
GROSS: Will this be the first trial of its kind in which private contractors
are being held accountable for manslaughter in the theater of war?
Mr. SCAHILL: There was one prosecution under the Patriot Act of a CIA
contractor named David Passaro for the abuse of a detainee in Afghanistan early
on in the war on terror. But this is certainly the first trial of its type and
of this magnitude, in the sense that you have diplomatic security operatives -
and that's what Blackwater guys were working as that day - being charged with
There is no precedent for this. And I have to say that I've talked to legal
experts on both sides of the coin here, and this is going to be a very tough
case for the government to win because U.S. law at the time of this killing was
written in such a way that it's unclear that it applies directly to these
Blackwater men because they weren't working for the Department of Defense,
where they could either be court-martialed or prosecuted under a civilian law
in the U.S. that applies to DOD contractors. They were working for the State
Department. It's unclear if the law they're being prosecuted under actually
applies to them.
GROSS: If it doesn't, what would the implications be?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, the implications would be that we have a firm confirmation
that there actually is no U.S. law that could be used to prosecute these kinds
of crimes, and the Iraqis, up until very recently, were stripped of their legal
ability to prosecute contractors in their country. That was implemented by Paul
Bremer, who was the first person that Blackwater protected in Iraq in 2003.
When he left the country after being President Bush's essentially envoy there,
he issued an edict that immunized contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
So Terry, if these guys are not convicted or â I mean, if they're not convicted
because the law doesn't apply to them. If they're not convicted because a jury
determines they didn't do it, that's one thing. If they're not convicted
because the law doesn't apply to them in the view of a judge or jury, then it's
a stunning moment in the United States of America because it's a confirmation
that these forces truly are above the law.
GROSS: Now, there's a civil lawsuit. This is a separate story. There's a civil
lawsuit against Blackwater in which there were two affidavits submitted, and
you broke what those affidavits had to say. Tell us about the affidavits.
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, John Doe Number One and John Doe Number Two is how these
affidavits were signed, and these were affidavits submitted in support of the
plaintiffs in the cases against Blackwater that are being heard in Virginia.
And John Doe One and John Doe Two are former Blackwater employees, and they
allege that Erik Prince is a Christian crusader who rewards the destruction of
Muslim life and that he views his goal in the world as waging a war against
They also allege that Blackwater has been involved with arms smuggling into
Iraq, using Erik Prince's private airplanes, that Blackwater puts unauthorized
weapons into dog food bags and smuggles them into Iraq. And perhaps the most
inflammatory allegation that was made in these affidavits is the allegation
that Erik Prince may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals
that are believed to be cooperating with federal authorities in their criminal
probe of Blackwater.
And I should say, Terry, that both of these individuals said that they were
cooperating with the Department of Justice criminal investigation. But those -
their cooperation wouldn't be publicly known to me or anyone else because it
would be part of a grand jury, and those proceedings are sealed.
GROSS: Do you take these affidavit statements seriously?
Mr. SCAHILL: I take them seriously, not just on their surface, but because I've
heard the similar allegations from other former Blackwater employees and
executives that I know to not be John Doe Number One and John Doe Number Two.
They're very serious allegations, and so to print something like that as a
journalist, I think you have to do more diligence than simply read an
affidavit, and we certainly did that. And I believe that this is something that
a lot of people at Blackwater are talking about and are concerned about.
GROSS: Jeremy Scahill will talk more about Blackwater in the second half of the
show. He's the national security correspondent for The Nation and author of the
2007 book "Blackwater." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Polk Award-winning journalist
Jeremy Scahill. He spent the past few years investigating the private military
contractor Blackwater, which has played a major role in the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Scahill is the author of the 2007 book "Blackwater," and is the
national security correspondent for The Nation.
When we left off, we were talking about a civil suit against Blackwater in
which two affidavits submitted by former Blackwater employees, each known only
as John Doe, make several allegations against Erik Prince, the founder of
Blackwater, including that he's a Christian crusader and that he may have
facilitated the murder of individuals cooperating with the criminal probe of
So in one of these affidavits, John Doe A or B says that Prince views himself
as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith
from the globe and that his companies encouraged and rewarded the destruction
of Iraqi life.
That's a really strong statement. It...
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, I mean...
Mr. SCAHILL: ...that was one of the least shocking things that I read in there
because, you know, I've been tracking this story since 2004 and itâs abundantly
clear to me that Erik Prince views himself, and I donât say this rhetorically,
Terry, Erik Prince views himself as a Christian crusader. There's almost no
doubt about that. I wasnât stunned at all when I read that. Everyone at
Blackwater knows that.
GROSS: What do you think people mean when they describe Erik Prince, the head
of Blackwater, as a Christian crusader? What has he done that might fit that
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, the first time that that term officially came to the public
light was in the form of these affidavits in terms of coming from people from
within the company. And the description that they offer is that Erik Prince
actually encouraged a climate where people were using - regularly using racist
terms like Haji to describe Iraqis or other Muslims, and that there were
operations where Blackwater men were encouraged to go night hunting in
helicopters with night vision goggles and they were essentially shooting Iraqis
The Department of Justice has a filing in the criminal case against Blackwater
where they say that some Blackwater operatives viewed the killing of Iraqis as
- innocent Iraqis - as payback for 9/11. And you also have a culture at
Blackwater where Erik Prince himself, my understanding is, has given speeches
to people about the epic crusade that they're on and has in fact used that term
himself - the term crusade.
So it would be the combination of encouraging an environment where racist terms
are being used to describe innocent Iraqis, where they're night hunting, where
they're celebrating their kills, as they're called, and just the general tone
for the operations that's set in Iraq and Afghanistan.
GROSS: Now, in this profile of Erik Prince in Vanity Fair that you mentioned,
it says that he was a CIA asset - a CIA spy. Is there any hint of when he was?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, I'll tell you what I know about this, Terry. In 2002,
Blackwater was first hired by the CIA on a black contract - a covert contract -
to go inside of Afghanistan as part of a force that would protect CIA
operatives and operations and they originally guarded the CIA outpost in Kabul
and then in a border town called Shkin along the Afghan/Pakistan border, and
then the line started to gray, where you had Blackwater guys supposed to be
guarding the CIA but in fact they would end up going out on missions with them.
And because they were former Special Forces guys, it seemed like a natural fit
to the CIA and to Blackwater.
Prince himself not long after that, my understanding is, tried to join the CIA.
And in fact in the Vanity Fair article he actually acknowledges this, that he
was rejected by the CIA. So what happened, Terry, to answer your question
directly, is that beginning in 2004, 2005, Prince started working in a
different way with the CIA and they opened up what they call a 201 file on him
that essentially made him an asset that had been vetted by the CIA. So he
wasnât officially an employee but he became an asset of the CIA.
And Prince used his - one of his actual homes to train special secret forces
that were going to be working for the CIA in sensitive operations around the
world, according to Vanity Fair, and that really kicked off this different
level of a relationship between Erik Prince and the CIA. So 2004, 2005 is when
things started to get really intense Erik Prince, Blackwater and the CIA. It
also was a time when a bunch of high level CIA guys jumped over to Blackwater
and took up employment with Erik Prince.
GROSS: If Erik Prince was a CIA asset, and I donât think we really have any way
of proving that, but if he was, does that raise any question?
Mr. SCAHILL: Sure. I mean if Erik Prince was a CIA asset and was funding
operations out of his own pocket, which Vanity Fair reported and which I've
also heard from other people, essentially Erik Prince was bankrolling
operations where there was no contract on paper for them, there was no
knowledge in the intelligence committees, not with the Gang of Eight, not the
broader permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
What that means is that you have an individual from the private sector that's
being hired on a contract explicitly to prevent Congress from having oversight
of those operations. That certainly is what members of the intelligence
committee I've talked with believe happened here.
So the dramatic concern I think would be that you have truly clandestine
operations that not even the most trusted members of Congress are allowed to
have access to, and yet, Erik Prince, owner of the largest private army in the
United States, is able to have access to all this information, be involved with
activities that somebody somewhere has deemed so important that they can't even
be briefed to the Congress. That's a very serious cause for concern, I think.
GROSS: Now, this isn't how Erik Prince sees it. He's quoted in that Vanity Fair
profile as saying: I'm painted as this war profiteer by Congress, meanwhile,
I'm paying for all sorts of intelligence activities to support American
national security out of my own pocket.
So obviously in his mind, or at least in this quotation, he sees himself as
being very patriotic and really helping America by bankrolling these
Mr. SCAHILL: Oh, I donât...
GROSS: Something that he should be applauded for in his mind.
Mr. SCAHILL: I donât question for one minute that Erik Prince views himself as
a patriot, as a true American, and someone that has risked his life and his
personal fortune in the pursuit of American national security. I wouldnât doubt
that that's how he perceives himself. But let's be clear here. What we're
talking about is a man who has incredible faith placed in him by someone within
government, so much faith that they say you can engage in these lethal
operations and we're not going to tell anyone about them.
What if, Terry, Erik Prince funds an operation where they bump somebody off in
Germany, and oops, itâs the wrong person? And then the German government finds
out about it and we have an incredible firestorm that's created, that Congress
hadn't been briefed on it, senior people at CIA might not be aware of it, and
Erik Prince and his guys bump this guy off because somebody gave him a wink and
a nod at the Central Intelligence Agency?
This is an incredible amount of faith being placed in a character who has a
very unsavory record when it comes to respecting human rights and the rights of
civilians in war zones. I think this is something that should be very, very
controversial to both Democrats and Republicans - in fact, to all Americans.
GROSS: Just curious, why did you use Germany as the country for that example?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, I chose Germany because - well, because in the Vanity Fair
article Adam Ciralsky describes Blackwater being part of an operation that
tracked an al-Qaida suspect in Germany. And I think that, you know, that raised
eyebrows not only with me but with other people in the Congress and in the
intelligence community because we donât have a declaration of war against
Germany and generally that's not how things are done. You coordinate with the
intelligence services of an allied nation.
GROSS: Youâve written that you think that Erik Prince might've had ulterior
motives in being profiled in Vanity Fair and that you call it a possible case
of gray mail. Would you explain what you mean?
Mr. SCAHILL: Right. Well, I talked to former prosecutors and military and
constitutional law experts that said that what Erik Prince is doing in this
Vanity Fair piece is trying to preempt the successful prosecution or indictment
of himself. And what gray mailing is Terry - it was used by Oliver North's
lawyers, it's been used by other alleged CIA assets who have been caught up in
an operation that they claimed was a part of an official operation or a
classified operation - and what they'll do in these cases is they will
essentially put forward a little bit of information that is classified or
controversial to show the government, look, this is just the tip of the
iceberg. I can peel away all the layers of this if you want to go there with
me. If you come at me hard with some kind of an indictment, which could happen
with Erik Prince in a number of cases, I'm going to come back and I'm going to
put on the table all of the stuff that I did for the United States government
and we're going to have a real trial here.
So the gray mailing is sort of saying to the government, I dare you to come
after me for something that I did while I was working for you and try to
prosecute me criminally. It's actually brilliant because it has worked many
times and that is what the legal experts that I talked to believe Erik Prince
was doing in talking to Vanity Fair.
And he talked to a very trusted source. Adam Ciralsky himself left the CIA
under very contentious circumstances, then actually filed a lawsuit against the
CIA and is no stranger to controversy involving the CIA.
GROSS: Well, if youâre just joining us, my guest is Jeremy Scahill. We're
talking about Blackwater and some of the latest news involving that private
Jeremy, let's take a short break here and then we'll come back and talk some
more about Blackwater and private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Scahill. He covers national security for The Nation
magazine. We're talking about Blackwater and other private contractors in Iraq
What is Blackwater's presence now in Iraq and Afghanistan? What parts of their
contract were cancelled and what do they still have?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, let me start at the top of the pyramid with something that I
think is quite jolting to a lot of people that donât know this. Hillary Clinton
as a candidate for president vowed to ban Blackwater and she co-sponsored
legislation that sought to ban them. Hillary Clinton is now guarded in part by
Blackwater when she visits Afghanistan, just to give you a sense of how deep
this company remains embedded under the Obama administration.
In Iraq, the Obama administration elected not to renew Blackwater's massive
security contract to guard all U.S. diplomats in that country, which they had
from the beginning of the U.S. invasion. But whatâs happened is that Blackwater
has an aviation contract that allows Blackwater operatives to be armed and they
ferry around U.S. officials. That contract has been extended indefinitely by
the Obama administration and the reason that Congress has been told that's
happening is because there's not another company with the identical force to
Blackwater's air force in Iraq. So Blackwater remains in Iraq right now on a
$120 million aviation contract.
In Afghanistan, Blackwater still has the prime contract to guard all U.S.
diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, Ambassador Eikenberry, as well as
visiting U.S. diplomats and congressional delegations. So they continue on and
they will be for at least another year and probably beyond that as the premiere
private security force for the U.S. embassy in terms of guarding convoys. They
donât guard the embassy itself but they guard the convoys, all members of
Congress that visit, Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, etcetera.
Simultaneously, Blackwater works on a very large contract, in the hundreds of
millions, for the Department of Defense, where they're engaged in training
operations, which is a big part of the Obama strategy. They also work for the
Drug Enforcement Agency - the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency - training Afghan
counternarcotics forces, and as of a couple of months ago they were still
working for the CIA, although the latest news is that Leon Panetta, the CIA
director, is trying to purge all Blackwater contracts from the agency. So the
short answer, Terry, is that Blackwater is very much alive and active in
Afghanistan. It's on its way out in Iraq, but it's still hanging on.
GROSS: Now, in talking about Blackwater, weâve using the name Blackwater. But
Blackwater officially changed its name to Xe, X-E. So I asked you before when
we started which name we should use - should we go with Xe? Should we go with
Blackwater? You suggested Blackwater.
Mr. SCAHILL: Well...
GROSS: That is how the company's commonly known. So what is the rebranding, the
Mr. SCAHILL: I have to say, Terry, youâre so two weeks ago. It's now U.S.
GROSS: Oh, youâre kidding.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCAHILL: They changed it. It's funny because, you know..
GROSS: Did Xe not catch on?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCAHILL: Right. Well, I mean people donât know how to - I mean how
brilliant is it though that you pick a name that no one can figure out how to
pronounce at first, that when you try to Google it, you know, you get Xerox and
Xena and all of these things.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCAHILL: I mean try finding a federal contract for Xe and, you know, youâre
going to get every photocopying contract the U.S. government has ever signed.
GROSS: You speak from experience, I guess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCAHILL: Right. Right. So it's sort of a brilliant rebrand - it looks crude
but in a way itâs sort of deviously brilliant. So youâve got Xe Company, U.S.
Training Center, Paravant, Greystone, XPG LLC, EP Investments. I mean there's -
I found like 12, 15 different corporate registrations of companies that Erik
Prince owns. And you know, no one in Blackwater has stopped calling it
Blackwater. No matter how many times someone repeats the name Xe Company or
U.S. Training Center, everybody talks about it as Blackwater.
GROSS: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's interesting. A lot of people have been - well, some people,
anyways, have been leaking to you about Blackwater and about Erik Prince. Why
are people leaking?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, you know, I've talked to let's say a half a dozen or so
former Blackwater people in the last two months, and some of these are people
that have taken up employment with other companies like Blackwater, and I've a
sort of common narrative, and that is that people worked for years at that
company. They adored Erik Prince. They looked up to him. They thought that it
was a noble company, and they started to realize that there were ulterior
motives at play.
Some people professed a sort of shock when they started to hear Erik Prince
talk in sort of messianic tones about the mission in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Others said that there was a sort of culture of immorality at Blackwater, of
wife swapping and infidelity that they said didnât jibe with the public
perception of Blackwater. And then others said that they didnât want to be a
part of what they perceived as illegal operations. I have talked to people that
have witnessed the placement of illegal weapons in dog food bags. That came out
in these affidavits, but for a couple years I have been hearing about that.
Other people that said that Blackwater was firing medical and mental health
personnel that refused to clear individuals for deployment, that had made
racist statements or were addicted to steroids or other drugs that they were
using in the war zones. And so, I think that people have left for their own
reasons. And as disgruntled as you could portray them, I have yet to hear
someone that truly just seemed like they were trying to harm the company but
rather people that were saying: I was a part of this for too long and my
penance is I want people to know about it.
GROSS: Now are your links mostly from former Blackwater employees or do you
also have people who are talking to you from the CIA?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, I have people that have talked to me from the CIA. I have
people that have talked to me from military intelligence. I have a source in
Special Forces and then I have a number of Blackwater people that I talked to.
GROSS: And are the CIA and military people uncomfortable with the arrangement
with Blackwater? Is that why those people are leaking to you?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, Iâll sort of put this in an informal way. Iâve been a little
bit amused by what I perceive as the military special forces taking no small
amount of pleasure in watching the CIA take all of the heat on this Blackwater
story. And I think that there is great frustration at the CIA that they are
being portrayed as the sort of ultimate bad guy in this, the people that hired
Erik Prince and made all these secret deals. When, in reality, the military was
doing essentially the same thing, and Iâm understanding maybe even more of
these things with Blackwater than the CIA was.
So, but, you know, one of the sources that came to me with some information
from within the military intelligence bureaucracy is a supporter of the
strategy that President Obama is implementing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and
said that he is deeply offended that these operations are happening away from
any system of oversight and law when it comes to Blackwater and, in fact, JSOC
operating essentially off the books. And the sense that I have had from people
in government that have talked to me is that they believe that they canât be
silent and that the public has a right to know about this. And if the generals
arenât going to brief it to the Congress or the White House, then itâs their
responsibility as responsible citizens to make sure the public has access to
GROSS: Have you ever been to one of the Blackwater compounds or met the head of
Blackwater, Erik Prince?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, Iâm not allowed on the Blackwater compound but Iâve â I mean
Iâve tried, you know, many, many times to get access to - official access to
Erik Prince or to Blackwaterâs compounds. I did track down Erik Prince at a
meeting of the American Enterprise Institute a few years ago and I tried to
interview him. And he actually - at the time I was â I didnât have a video
camera I just had an audio recorder and he hit down my microphone when I
started talking to him and tried to kind of leave the room. And it was almost
like this cat and mouse. I kind of just walking around the room asking him
questions. And I had the press person from the American Enterprise Institute,
which is a leading neocon think tank, grabbing my arm and saying he is not part
of a press conference. And then this big force reconnaissance Marine, a former
force reconnaissance Marine that works for Erik Prince sort of stepped in front
of me and said, can I help you with something? And it was almost like I went
back to puberty and I was like, I want to ask Mr. Prince a question. Anywayâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCAHILL: â¦that was my epic run in with Erik Prince. But other than that he
â no Blackwater officials have ever agreed to sit down and talk with me. They
have answered on a couple of occasions questions by email that Iâve submitted
to them and usually just to say, you know, your full of BS and this isnât true.
GROSS: You referred at one point to Blackwater as being Americaâs largest
private army. Do you think of them as a private army? What does that mean?
Mr. SCAHILL: Well, there are two divisions within Blackwater that people â most
people have never even heard of. One is Blackwater Select. We talked about that
a bit. Those are the guys that service covert and classified programs. And then
the other is referred to internally in Blackwater as AOB, Army of Blackwater.
And those are the guys that work primarily for the U.S. State Department. They
certainly perceive themselves that way.
But, in terms, of me using the term army what else do you call a company that
has a 7,000 acre private military base, that has its own aviation division,
that actually rents aircrafts to the U.S. armed forces for use in sensitive
operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, has itâs own Maritime Division and has
multiple locations in the United States where they are training law
enforcement, military and special forces? All of those - and theyâre all
intelligence company. So, in a way theyâre more than an army. Theyâre almost a
small, parallel national security structure.
GROSS: Well, Jeremy Scahill, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SCAHILL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jeremy Scahill is the author of the book, âBlackwater,â and is the
national security correspondent for The Nation Magazine.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Whatâs The Word? How English Evolved This Decade
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, is always paying attention to how our language is
changing. Heâs been thinking about which words and phrases from the past year
and decade have caught on and which havenât.
GEOFF NUNBERG: Itâs list-making season again. Time Magazine got out of the gate
early with its list of the yearâs top buzzwords, along with lists of the ten
top albums, apologies, fashion faux pas, and viral videos, among others. They
had lot of lively catchphrases to choose from: sexting, wise Latina and beer
summit, not to mention all the labels for people with doubts about the
presidentâs birthplace, his plans to pull the plug on granny, and whether the
Tenth Amendment allows the federal government to provide health care at all.
The tea-baggers, the birthers, the deathers, the tenthers - it sounds less like
a political movement than the bill for a thrash metal concert in Cleveland.
But words from headlines tend to be short-lived. They get a moment in the sun,
then fade as quickly as a tan line. Remember daisy cutter, spider hole,
bennifer. They are lot like the category that Time calls top fleeting
celebrities, the linguistic equivalents of Nadya Suleman, Carrie Prejean,
Stephanie Birkett, and the Salahis - see, you forgot already. The more
interesting words usually catch on more slowly. For its word of the year, the
Oxford American Dictionary chose unfriend, as in, I went online and unfriended
her. Itâs not a bad choice to stand in for the rise of social networks.
It works the same bizarro alterations on the structure of an ordinary word that
the social sites do on the structure of ordinary personal relationships.
Granted, itâs been around for a few years but then these cultural trends can
take a while to spread across the social landscape. By the time you can get
good arugula in Tulsa, itâs already coming off the menus in Tribeca. As it
happens, this is one of the years when the odometer goes around two places, and
the members of the American Dialect Society, which originated the word-of-the-
year business 20 years ago, will also be selecting a word of the decade when
they meet in Baltimore in early January.
I got a list of the nominees from the lexicographer Grant Barrett of Wordnik,
who has been taking suggestions via email and tweet. I wasnât interested in
trying to pick a winner - that will almost certainly come down to one of a
handful of obvious candidates like 9/11, terrorism, Google, or green. But to
me, the interesting exercise was to see what picture emerges when you try to
take in a whole decadeâs worth of words in a single glance. I stopped writing
these down when I got to about 200 of them. The list already seemed like a
hopeless hodgepodge: Swine flu and suduko, terrorist, fist jab and freedom
fries, maverick and macaca.
It reminded me of a TV commercial for one of those hits of the '70s compilation
CDs, with a succession of songs by Gloria Gaynor, Neil Diamond, Kool and the
Gang, and The Clash. What exactly did they have in common, other than that they
all happened to be on the air in the same season? But there are patterns.
Groups of words arranged themselves into miniature narratives - wmds, cakewalk,
shock and awe, mission accomplished, backdoor draft, hillbilly armor, stay the
course, redeployment - that basically sums up the story in ten words or less.
Not surprisingly for the decade that divided the country into red and blue, it
was saturated with sexual and cultural ambivalence. It pronounced approvingly
on metrosexual and moved queer into primetime. At the same time politicians
were raising the specter of man on dog and adolescents were turning gay into a
new synonym for lame or uncool. It gave us the cougar and femocracy. It also
revived stand by your man and created dad-and-daughter purity balls and the
verb bitch-slap. In the realm of techno-prefixes, E and cyber were out and I
was in, along with neuro, eco, blogo and of course tw.
Technology also brought us malware and the pop-under, insidious successor to
the pop-up, not to mention the assorted ailments known as cell phone neck,
BlackBerry thumb, Nintendo elbow and Facebook fatigue. It was a good decade for
the lexicon of snark, starting with snark itself. We were busy voting people
off the island, throwing them under the bus, and generally not here to make
friends. It was the era of LOL, WTF, and the new interjection meh, an
expression of bored indifference that has acquired more than 400,000
enthusiastic Facebook fans.
Like every decade, it was rich in euphemisms. Some brought new creativity to
familiar topics: have a wide stance, and hiking the Appalachian Trail for
sexual embarrassments, negative equity and distressed assets for financial
ones. Others broke new ground. What was most disturbing about enhanced
interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition wasnât that they were
indirect. It was that we were actually having those discussions at all. Weâve
come a long way since the 1990s, in its blissful ignorance of zombie banks and
ninja loans, dirty bombs and IEDs, lolcats and bromances.
But itâs telling to recall some of the phrases that didnât catch on. We stopped
saying: if you do that the terrorists will win. In fact, we stopped talking
about the terrorists, period. We didnât abandon country for homeland. We bailed
on evildoers and the coalition of the willing bailed on us. And we wound up
giving the cheese-eating surrender monkeys their own chef shows on Bravo. Itâs
a different language we speak now but maybe not as much as we thought it might
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at
the University of California at Berkeley.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And
you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Iâm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.